Coral reef experts from the Caribbean met at Curacao

Last week a group of coral reef experts from all over the Caribbean met on Curaçao to discuss the need for monitoring of the coral reefs of the region to ensure their effective management. Agreement was reached on the minimum amount and type of data that should be collected by all countries in the region with coral reefs. An organizational structure for a revitalized and dynamic regional network of coral reef monitoring groups was drafted, with a core group that will be responsible for regular reporting, evaluating data standards, setting up a central database, encouraging more countries to join the network and identify possible funding sources. The network will also specifically address building local capacity through training programs and expert support.
This workshop of coral reef experts, which took place at the Curaçao Sea Aquarium, was convened by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN) in cooperation with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)’s Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW) Protocol for the Wider Caribbean and its Regional Activity Center (RAC) hosted by France on Guadeloupe, with support from the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs through the National Office for the Caribbean Netherlands. The GCRMN is the data arm of the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) of which the Netherlands is also a member. It recently published a groundbreaking report “Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012”. In this report, edited by eminent coral reef scientist Jeremy Jackson, a number of startling conclusions are drawn from a region-wide assessment of forty years of coral reef data. One is that climate change is shown to be only a minor factor in the decline of the reefs so far. Much greater threat originates from local unsustainable human activities, such as overfishing, sewage discharge, erosion and sedimentation. A direct relationship was found between the abundance of parrotfish and the health of the reef; low numbers of parrotfish invariably coincided with deteriorated reefs. Another clear relationship was found between high numbers of tourists and the state of the reefs. Islands with more than 2000 tourists per square kilometer of land per year were found to have less than 14% coral cover. Another recently released report, “Towards Reef Resilience and Sustainable Livelihoods, a handbook for Caribbean coral reef managers” resulting from a regional, multiyear project called “Future of Reefs in a Changing Environment” (FORCE), found that three quarters of the difference between good and bad reefs can be ascribed to the presence or absence of good governance.
These publications clearly show that coral reefs can, and should be managed and protected effectively, but in order to do that they need to be monitored closely. The workshop on Curaçao was convened to revitalize and coordinate coral reef monitoring across the region. For the first time experts from different monitoring programs as well as sub-regional so-called ‘monitoring nodes’ who collected coral reef monitoring data for GCRMN in the past, came together to discuss how to better coordinate ongoing coral reef monitoring and stimulate and support monitoring in areas that lack the people or expertise for sustained monitoring efforts. The participants agreed on a set of core data that should be collected by all countries with coral reefs in the region and the standards which such data should comply with. Agreement was also reached about setting up a central database for the region that would allow easy input of collected data and facilitated reporting. To coordinate these efforts a core group of people coordinated by the SPAW-RAC will work together to prepare periodic regional reports; address issues of science, standardization and methods; oversee the database management; support capacity building; evaluate new monitoring techniques and technology and try to raise the necessary funding for this. This steering group will also assist with good internal and external communication of the regional network, and will try to engage all countries in the region to join this network. They will meet regularly, using other relevant regional meetings as a platform whenever possible. The new network for the region is tentatively called the Caribbean Coral Reef Conservation & Monitoring Network. It will be formalized through announcements and invitations to join by the end of this year.